Reflecting on The Guardian’s 200th birthday earlier this year, Alan Rusbridger was forced to admit that the paper he once edited “has never been much of a business”. He would certainly know. After his departure from the newspaper in 2015, which was preceded by years of costly expansion projects, annual cash outflows reached £72 million. There were 250 redundancies the following year.
My thoughts were with those former employees this week when I read that Rusbridger has another act left in him, this time as the editor of Prospect magazine. His appointment to the helm of the centre-left magazine did not cause many ripples beyond the confines of Twitter. But it was a reminder of an iron rule of British life, which is that prizes will always remain available for a certain sort of person on the Left. For them, no setback is ever forever. Often, it is hardly a setback at all.
One of the most perplexing aspects of every Conservative government is the continued reluctance of people on the Right to put themselves forward for public appointments. One reason for this, sometimes put forward by ministers themselves, is that people on the Right are often too busy pursuing private careers to spend their energies in the public sector. The argument goes that if they do move to the public sector, they only do it towards the end of their careers once they have made money.
There may be some truth to this, but it is at best a partial explanation. In recent years, the more likely reason is the tendency of the Left to hound anyone who dares encroach on what they regard as their territory. So a few years ago, when Toby Young was put forward as a non-executive member of the Office for Students, he was not merely deemed unsuitable for the job, but had almost every other part of his career torn from him.
It was the same with Sir Roger Scruton when he was appointed to an unpaid position on an advisory committee on house building. The activist Left used the opportunity to attempt to end in his career — even if it meant making up lies. In this climate of censoriousness, is it so surprising that Right-wingers and even centrists remain loath to put themselves forward for prominent appointments? Who would want every aspect of their personal life upturned for the sake of a job?
But as Rusbridger’s latest appointment demonstrates, such concerns are not shared by the Left. For by any reasonable standards, Rusbridger is a surprising person to appoint to any editorial position — and not only for his budgetary shortcomings.
The recent public admission by Roy Greenslade that he had been an active supporter of the IRA throughout his period of employment at The Guardian might normally have been dismissed as simply a matter of a foul personal conscience, had Greenslade not used his position at the paper to repeatedly push it in a pro-IRA direction. Greenslade’s pro-IRA opinions were well-known at the time — but when Rusbridger was repeatedly warned about this, he decided that those telling the truth were liars.
You might say that this was a different era and different standards applied. But Rusbridger failed one of the most notable standards of our own era as well. During his time as editor, he allowed Greenslade to downplay the rape of a woman, Máiría Cahill, and its subsequent cover-up by members of the IRA. By then Rusbridger must have been well-aware that his employee was a supporter of the IRA.
Why was that contributor allowed to smear a woman blowing the whistle on one of the IRA’s many disturbing practices? It is worth considering the outrage that would have erupted if, say, an editor of a Right-wing tabloid had allowed a female rape victim to be smeared in his pages. Their career would be finished. For Rusbridger, however, all he had to do was step down from an Irish media commission he was on.
Elsewhere, his career has continued to flourish. After leaving The Guardian he sailed into the comfortable position of Principal of Lady Margaret Hall — a position that it is impossible to conceive would ever have been offered to Paul Dacre. But last year, he announced his plans to leave his Oxford perch to spend more time addressing “the question of trust in media and society”.
No doubt he was confident that the revolving door would continue to work for him. Even if the old media wouldn’t give him another job, I suspect he felt safe in the knowledge there were plenty of other opportunities out there. Indeed, it is noticeable that in the wake of the Máiría Cahill scandal in March, Rusbridger did not resign his membership of other boards he was on.
He did not, for instance, resign from the deeply sinister Facebook Oversight Board, which decided that former US President Donald Trump should be barred from the platform. Perhaps he neglected to take that particular hit because the Board reportedly pays its members six-figure salaries for not much more than a dozen hours of work a week.
Yet in many ways, Rusbridger’s long tale of success is to be expected. After all, the Conservative Party may be the dominant political force in Britain. But there remains an unassailable culture that will always favour relatively unimpressive figures on the Left who preach about the importance of diversity but always take the jobs that they could so easily offer up to others.
If they have no business acumen, it doesn’t matter. If they have broken the standards of their trade, it doesn’t matter. If you’re lucky enough to be part of a small circle on the establishment Left, the world is your oyster. That is what keeps conservatives out of so many corners of public life. Britain still belongs to the Left – the Right just pretends to govern it.